By now, I’m sure you know by heart the story behind Jimmie Johnson’s pit crew. The team struggles at Texas, gets replaced by Jeff Gordon’s crew for the remainder of the Chase, and all but a few are gone at season’s end. Coming into 2011, Chad Knaus decided to go in a different direction with his pit crews. Over the off season, the team held a ton of tryouts and brought in a big group of younger guys. His plan was to send the fastest six guys from the week’s practices over the wall during that week’s race. It would be the ultimate earn your spot crew. I told you in January that I thought it was a bad idea, and I’m being proven correct.
Before this last week’s race at Michigan, Johnson had a few quotes and comments about the situation and how it’s going. To hear him and Knaus talk, you’d think things were going well. In reality though, race fans have watched the team struggle at times this season. There have certainly been some bright spots, but there have also been some missteps. And those missteps have led to Knaus making changes. The front changer and front carrier were swapped out a few races back, but we’ve seen the new tandem make some mistakes recently. If that continues, expect more changes.
Like I said in my post back in January, the really good pit crews are those that have worked together for a while. Really tight pit stops only happen when guys know each other really well, and can anticipate each other’s every move. If a mistake happens, the team rallies, makes a correction, and keeps digging. Teamwork like that only comes from continuity. Knaus has dismissed this completely.
What every smart pit crew coach and crew chief understands is that mistakes are going to happen on pit road. There is just too much happening very quickly, and in very tight spaces for things to go right all the time. The guys who stick around on pit road for many years are those who are able to quickly forget about mistakes and get right back to business. A guy who is constantly worried about making one small mistake and getting replaced won’t be at the top of his game. He’s too focused on not screwing up, when he should be focused on staying loose and doing things right.
The pit crew situation at Hendrick Motorsports is really an interesting dichotomy. On one hand we’ve got Knaus with his brilliant plan, and on the other we’ve got the rest of the teams using the traditional method. The 88 and 5 pit crews consist of veteran guys who’ve been together for some time. The 24 crew has a mix of veteran and younger guys, but they have been kept together. You know the result.
At the end of the day, I feel bad for those six who strap up and don Lowe’s firesuits each week. In some sense, they are behind before they even start. They are already responsible for servicing the race car for the reigning five-time champ, but because of their leader’s plan, they are subject to an extra helping of pressure. Instead of hearing “hey, we’ve got your back and we support you,” they get “hey, don’t screw up or you’re out.” Not a great message. And everyone in the garage sees it, except for Chad Knaus.